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Desert Island Discs

Desert Island Discs turns 80

Lauren Bacall: “That’s a dirty trick.” Chip Silver Screen Collection/Getty

When Roy Plomley started Desert Island Discs in January 1942, he had to record his episodes in the ramshackle, bomb-damaged Maida Vale Studios. Exactly 80 years on, and more than 2,000 episodes later, Plomley’s show has become “the jewel in BBC Radio 4’s crown”, says Donna Ferguson in The Observer. The premise is simple: guests pick eight recordings they would take to a desert island with them, and discuss their life along the way.

The choices are revealing. In 1977, the Mary Poppins author PL Travers wanted no music at all – picking seven recitations of poems and one Shakespeare speech instead. “If you put me on a desert island,” Travers explained, “I would want above all things to hear the human voice.” Louis Armstrong, on the other hand, liked the sound of his voice so much that he chose five of his own songs. (The pianist Moura Lympany went one better, picking entirely her own work.)

The idea for guests to bring a “luxury item” only started in September 1951. The actress Sally Ann Howes was the first to choose and asked for a bulb of garlic. Since then, luxury items have become a bit more luxurious. John Major chose a full-size model of the Oval cricket ground; John Cleese picked Michael Palin – dead and stuffed.

🏝📀😡 When Lauren Bacall went on the programme in 1979 she was outraged at the final question: which one disc would she save from the waves? “That’s a dirty trick,” Bacall scolded Plomley. At the end of the interview, when Plomley thanked Bacall for letting us hear her desert island discs, the actress snapped back: “And thank YOU, for taking seven of them away from me.”

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